The Art of Navigating Conferences

Written by Justine Rothbart

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“You’ve been to a lot of archives conferences,” my fellow CUA CHIM cohort member said to me last weekend while attending the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) in Baltimore. Yes, she’s right. The conference last weekend was my third MARAC conference. I’ve also attended conferences for the Society of American Archivists and the American Alliance of Museums. Along the way, I’ve picked up some tips for how to navigate these conferences. I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t work. Becoming more accustomed to attending conferences gives me a greater understanding how to experience them to their fullest potential. So here’s a few of my tips for navigating these conferences:

(P.S. This not only applies to archives-related conferences, but it applies to any conference.)

1. Plan Ahead

I know our lives are very busy, but if you get the chance before you attend, print out the conference schedule. Download the app. Plan your schedule. For conferences that are smaller, such as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, I like to actually print out the conference schedule (if it’s not too many pages). Maybe I’m old fashioned, but there’s something satisfying with circling the sessions I plan to attend. For larger conferences, such as the Society of the American Archivists, download the app and select the sessions you plan to attend. Planning ahead gives you a greater idea of everything that is offered. By planning ahead, you probably won’t miss a session because you “didn’t know about it.” Planning is always done with a pencil and eraser. This means that you don’t have to stay committed to those sessions. Chances are, you’ll decide to attend different sessions on the actual day(s) of the conference. And that’s a good thing.

2. Tell Everyone

Tell everyone you will be attending this conference. How many times have I heard, “I didn’t know you were going to be here!” It’s great running into people at conferences you didn’t know were attending. However, sometimes  you might run into them at the end of the conference and you don’t have enough time to talk. It would have been nice to plan ahead so you can grab a cup of coffee with that person earlier in the conference. How do you tell people? Start by e-mailing your previous co-workers, supervisors, and other archives-related contacts. This will start a conversation if you haven’t “talked” in awhile. Even if that person can’t come, this will give you the chance to plan another time to meet. Also, spread the word on social media. Tell your friends you’re attending this conference via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. Tag the organization hosting the conference and add relevant hashtags. If it’s an archives-related conference, tell your archivist friends and also your non-archivist friends. You’d be surprised who might be interested that you’re attending. This summer at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Conference in Washington, D.C., I posted to Facebook, “I am at SAA!” I immediately get a text from my non-archivist friend who saw my Facebook post. She asked if I will be going to the reception the next night at the Library of Congress. Of course I was attending, but I was kind of confused how she would know about it. It turned out, she was attending as someone’s guest! We ended up meeting at the reception the next day and had a great time! If you don’t have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or e-mail to spread the word, try sending smoke signals.

3. Be Spontaneous 

Even though you planned your schedule ahead of time, leave some room for spontaneous encounters. When the day(s) to attend the conference finally arrives, you might change your mind to attend a different session than you planned. That’s ok. You never know what you’ll stumble upon. Maybe you should grab a cup of coffee with a new person you just met at the conference instead of sticking to your previously planned schedule. Maybe you should spend an extra 30 minutes in the exhibit hall. Whatever it is, don’t be tied down with your previously planned schedule and have fun. In May at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference in Seattle, fellow CUA CHIM cohort member, Kelsey Conway, and I ran into a fellow alumni from our undergraduate school (University of Mary Washington). We ditched our plans and spontaneously joined her for a lunch at the Seattle Public Library hosted by her Museum Studies program at the University of Washington. We didn’t plan to go to this event (because we didn’t know about it), but I’m glad we did! We ended up meeting other students in the program and listened to their poster presentations. Read more about the AAM conference in my blog post: A Latte of Museum Fun in Seattle.

4. Be Flexible 

This goes along with the whole spontaneity thing. Just remember, some things don’t always work out as planned. Maybe there are no seats available in the session you planned to attend. Be flexible, and go to a different session. Who knows, you might end up enjoying it. This summer when there was a major delay on the metro during the Society of American Archivists Conference in Washington, D.C., I had to remind myself, “Be flexible.” Maybe it’s meant to be this way. Because of the metro delay, I could not go to some sessions I planned to attend. I still had a great time! Check out my blog post about being flexible at the SAA Conference: Go with the Flow (Even if it’s hard for Archivists).

5. Get out of your comfort zone

You might be tempted to attend sessions where you know the subject really well. But one of the reasons to attend conferences is to learn something new, right? So try to pick at least one session where you know nothing about. Are you planning on attending all sessions relating to education? Mix it up a bit and attend a session about professional development. You never know what you might learn. Read about my experience of being out of my comfort zone at the Library of Congress National Book Festival: Geeking Out.

6. Socialize 

As you can tell by now, socializing is a high priority for me at conferences. Yes, it is important to learn new things and to attend the sessions, but it is also important to meet new people in your field and see old friends. So when you’re at a conference, try not to turn down a socializing event. Is there a reception? Great! Go to the reception and tell other people to attend too. Do you have some free time to kill before the next event? Great! Meet up with other people from the conference to talk in a more casual setting. At the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference last weekend, a group of us (from Catholic University and University of Maryland) decided to go to a restaurant (in a historic hotel, of course) while we had some time before the reception. This gave us the chance to meet new people and talk to classmates outside of class.

CUA “CHIMers” at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference reception at the Peabody Library in Baltimore. Left to Right: Justine Rothbart (me) and Kelsey Conway. October 17, 2014.

7. Think about the Future

What’s going to happen when you go home after the conference? What can you do to harness the momentum? While you’re at the conference, make connections with people who live in your geographic region. At the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC), there are different regional caucuses. I am a member of the MARAC DC Caucus and get local updates through e-mail and Facebook about DC related archives topics and MARAC DC happy hours. At MARAC last weekend, I attended the DC Caucus session where we received updates and we able to put a face to the name. Also, share your experience! Tell people that you attended a conference. After the conference, post on your social media accounts or write a blog post. Writing a blog post (longer than 140 characters) about your experience, what you learned, and your thoughts about the conference gives a little more depth and perspective. It is also a good way for you to reflect on your own experience. By sharing your conference stories afterwards, you might encourage someone to attend the same conference in the future or make a connection with someone unexpectedly. After attending the MARAC conference last year in Philadelphia, I wrote this blog post: A is for Archives and Advocacy. A member of the Society of the American Archivists (SAA) Issues & Advocacy Roundtable was grateful I wrote a blog post about their session in Philadelphia and recommended I should write a blog post for the SAA blog! I wrote this blog post for the SAA Issues & Advocacy Roundtable blog called: Oh my gosh, this is so cool!

I hope these tips will help you when you attend your next conference. Whether it’s your first conference or your 50th, remember the most important tip of all: Have fun.

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Wondering which conferences to attend? Here’s a couple archives-related conferences you should check out:

Society of American Archivists

Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference 

 

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SAA 2014: Archives, Activism, and a Whole Lot of Twitter

Oh, the most wonderful time of the year: conference season! When professionals the whole world over experience the joy of free continental breakfast, standing-room-only panel discussions, and odd luggage necessary to safely transport misshapen posters and displays through the TSA gauntlet. For me, the beginning and end of my conference whirlwind consisted of the Society of American Archivists 2014 meeting. Luckily, this year’s host city was Washington, DC. In lieu of a boarding pass, I grabbed my SmarTrip card and hoped down to Woodley Park for days filled with archival fun.

Full disclosure: I am not, per se, an archivist. I am a graduate student specializing in cultural heritage information management with a focus on rare books, manuscripts, and medieval material culture. However, if my coursework has taught me anything, it is that the ongoing convergence of library, archives, and museum professionals — coupled with the ever-increasing technological synergy between these disparate institutions — means that it is incumbent upon us as information professionals to being engaged on several scholarly fronts. With this in mind, I felt that my participation in the SAA conference would not only help me in my own interdisciplinary efforts, but would also add a unique voice to the archival conversation that would occur at the conference.

As writing about the chaos of conference life in some semblance of linear fashion is a herculean task, I will segment my comments by events, panels, discussions, or other relevant dimensions.

  • Before the official kick-off of SAA, a pre-conference workshop was held that explored the use of open-access applications for optical character recognition of non-standard texts. Led by Matthew Christy of the Early Modern OCR Project from Texas A&M, this workshop provided extremely helpful insight into the workflow for training Tesseract to identify and convert early modern print types into computer-usable text. On a personal note, this was a whirlwind of new information to the uninitiated OCRer (i.e. me). However, knowing what I do now, I think that this was an excellent professional development experience that will be useful on future projects.
  • FOIA and Access: The plenary discussion featured a lively discussion on the importance of FOIA to the realm of investigative journalism. A fantastic – and timely – discussion that highlighted the importance of archivists as both holders of information and conduits of access.
  • Integrating Digital Objects and Finding Aids: As with all panels focusing on digital materials, this panel was packed.  This panel, focusing on the Northwest Digital Archives, presented great ideas on approaches to ensuring object-collection hierarchy maintenance; use of publicly available resources as service hubs for private collections; and approaches to user testing.
  • SNAC: Representatives from the SNAC project led a great discussion on the development of linked EAC-CPF records to help unify entity identification in distributed record holding institutions. Again, another jam-paced session due to the digital orientation of the topic. Still, a great opportunity to learn about ongoing initiatives.
  • HIV/AIDS Archives: In this panel, a fascinating conversation occurred in which the difficulties associated with archiving an ongoing social phenomenon were illuminated. In particular, the NYPL archivist of the AIDS/HIV Collection recounted conflicts between their collection and the ACT UP activist organization due to the public perception of the historiographic activities of archivists. The difficulty arises from convincing the public that archives are not only collections of things that ‘have occurred’, but are rather ongoing records of individual, organizational, and societal events, continually being reappraised, reassessed, and reinterpreted. The quotable takeaway is the ongoing conversation between the competing concepts of “AIDS History” and “AIDS is History.”
  • Poster Session:
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    36″x40″ of glory!

    The poster session was an excellent opportunity to meet a variety of scholars and professionals and to give them an introduction to my work on Project Andvari. A lot of very fruitful conversations occurred. A couple even led to possible partnerships for future collaboration and data sharing (and a possible job opportunity, but let’s not get too hopeful). All-in-all, it was a great chance to practice my presenting skills and to get my face out there as a participating member of the larger scholarly community.

Conferences are always hectic (and exhausting). There is always far too much for one person to experience, but the net effect is one of great professional development and scholarly sharing. This year’s SAA conference was no exception. I walked away from this experience enlivened with a renewed energy for my professional field. While I couldn’t attend more sessions, I was extremely grateful to my fellow conference attendees and their dogged upkeep of the #saa14 thread, allowing me to follow the numerous concurrent sessions that I could not attend.  As I near the end of my graduate coursework, I am excited to more fully enter in to my chosen profession, knowing that the field is populated with such energetic and innovative professionals.

Go with the Flow (Even if it’s hard for Archivists)

Written by Justine Rothbart

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I downloaded the app. I mapped out my day. I planned my schedule. When the day finally came to attend the Society of American Archivists conference, I was prepared. What I wasn’t prepared for was the announcement I heard while waiting on the metro platform, “We are experiencing residual delays from an earlier train malfunction at Farragut West. We regret your inconvenience. We thank you for your patience.”

Doesn’t WMATA know that the Society of American Archivists conference is in town? Don’t they know that I need to go to a session on crowdsourcing?!

Unfortunately, those of us from Washington, D.C. are too familiar with this announcement. We sometimes schedule time for metro delays. But I didn’t schedule time for a two hour commute from my home in Reston, Virginia to the conference. Alas, I did not make it to the crowdsourcing session. When the sessions were too crowded to find a seat, I just decided to wait until the next session.

While meandering through the hallway of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, upset that my dreams have been dashed by, yet again, another metro delay (too dramatic?), an unexpected surprise happened. I ran into people I did not expect to see! I ran into my previous supervisor, co-workers, professors, and classmates. That’s when I realized, conferences, like the Society of American Archivists Conference, are not just about attending all the sessions and learning so much new information until your head explodes. It’s about the unexpected surprises. It’s about the serendipitous encounters. It’s about the connections.

Fellow Catholic University graduate students at the Society of American Archivists Conference

Catholic University graduate students at the Society of American Archivists Conference

I know as archivists, it’s difficult for us not to plan and for us not to organize. It’s our job to organize. But maybe we should plan for spontaneity. Maybe we should plan for those unexpected encounters. And who knows, you might even end up having more fun than you planned.

University of Mary Washington Alumni at the Library of Congress for the Society of American Archivists reception

University of Mary Washington Alumni at the Library of Congress for the Society of American Archivists reception

 

“Oh my gosh, this is so cool!”

Written by Justine Rothbart

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“Oh my gosh, this is so cool!” This phrase goes through my head dozens of times a day while working in the archives. As archivists, we think almost everything in an archival collection is the most interesting thing in the world. Well, of course, we’re archivists. We get lost in our own world reading the stories, examining historic photos, and listening to oral histories. We think, “I have to tell everyone about this! They will all think it is so interesting!” Will they? Let’s think for a minute. Let’s think about those people who are not archivists. Let’s think about those who do not dedicate their life to preserving and providing access to archival material. Will they feel the same way you do? Will they care as much as you do?

Click here to continue reading the rest of the post on the Society of American Archivists Issues and Advocacy Roundtable blog.

Library of Congress’s Cultural Heritage Archives Symposium

This past week, the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center hosted a two-day conference titled Cultural Heritage Archives: Networks, Innovation & Collaboration. With attendees from all across the country and the world, this symposium was a fertile arena for insight and discourse on many pertinent issues related to the design, management, and administration of cultural heritage archives. A wide variety of speakers from all sectors of the archival community presented inspiring papers on numerous topics. Really, there is too much to say about this symposium; so much so that justice cannot really be done in a blog post format. This is a polite way of saying you really should have been there.

To provide a brief summary of the symposium, here are the major bullet points:

  • Danna Bell-Russel, Educational Resource Specialist at LOC and SAA President, presented the first keynote address on the first day, focusing on ways that archivists can bridge connections between institutions and disciplines.
  • The first session saw many papers on use and users of cultural heritage archives from U. Oregon, Oxford, U. Colorado Boulder, Universite Paris Diderot, U. Alberta, and U. North Texas.
    • FULL DISCLOSURE: I wasn’t able to make the first part of the day’s festivities, so I’m basing this off of the symposium program.
  • The second session of the day raised some great questions about the approach to archival description, such as:
    • How should the EAC-CPF standard be applied to link archival metadata?
    • How should social media be used to expose archival collections, especially regarding collections that have significant cultural importance?
    • What’s the best way to catalog music archives with regards to quick access and use in educational settings?
  • A poster session featured many great studies on archival programming, but the most interesting was a poster on Traditional Knowledge Licensing and Labeling presented by Jane Anderson. Learn more about TK Licenses here.
  • The second day kicked off with an absolutely fabulous key note address by Sita Reddy about the decolonization efforts of indigenous peoples regarding their cultural wisdom as captured in the Hortus Malabaricus. The abstract of her presentation can be seen here.
  • On a silly note, apparently there’s no LCSH heading for bourbon.

Be sure, I could go on and on and on about the wonderful talks presented at the symposium, but that could take ages.

HOWEVER, I will say that what was most stirring about this symposium was the continued recognition of the importance of collaboration in the cultural heritage community. Be it with ethnic or cultural groups, be it with archival users or audiences, artists, collectors, IT staff, archive administrators, or what have you, the repeated anthem of the two-day symposium was that archivists must constantly seek out new and innovative ways to collaborate with internal and external parties to ensure that the collections survive in perpetuity and gain new life through continued access and use.

One point was brought up that I thought also bears mentioning. During a Q&A session, Timothy Powell of the American Philosophical Society declared that he felt that a group was missing from the day’s proceedings and that the group was digital humanists. This struck me as odd as the statement appeared to come from an “us-them” perspective that set up digital humanists as external to archivists. I feel however that the digital humanities is a broad, reflexively-inclusive term that has within its scope all who work with the humanities, be they scholars, archivists, librarians, &c. Considering the increased prevalence of digital formats of preservation and access that occur in the archival community, one is hardpressed to find a humanist that doesn’t, in one form or another, operate in the digital world. In this regard, I disagree that the digital humanities were unrepresented; rather, many — if not all — of the attendees at the symposium are a part of the digital humanities, they just might not know it yet.

To wrap up, the symposium was a great forum of ideas on a wide array of topics in the cultural heritage archival field. Great perspectives were shared and I hope to see many excellent collaborations emerge from the proceedings.

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Be sure to keep your ear to the ground as the LOC will likely make videos of the symposium sessions available online through the webcasts site.

For even MORE cultural heritage archives fun, be sure to check out the symposium’s twitter feed at #chas13.